The taboo against ambition

Published: December 6, 2010

Ambition is not a dirty word - so why are we ashamed to admit we feel it?

When I was eight-years-old my greatest pleasure in life was spending Saturday afternoons in my father’s office.

I would be allowed to sit at his massive oak desk with mountains of papers and neaten up while he looked at files or took phone calls.

I was mesmerized by the sheer amount of papers he could read, the fact that he had a computer at his desk and a secretary outside his office.

As my mary-janed feet dangled from his swivel chair I would think “Daddy must be smart”.

The measures by which my eight-year-old self had determined that my father was successful were materialistic but they were also accurate. The truth is that most of us do crave a corner office with an impressive job title. We want to do more, earn more and be more.

Yet, if you ask employees – they won’t admit it. They want to grow but they don’t want to talk about how because it seems culturally ‘disrespectful’ to think about moving ahead and replacing someone who currently has the position they dream of holding one day.

The other day I was chatting with a talented young friend and asked him where he saw himself this time next year. A little flustered he said “I am happy right where I am.” Fair enough. I asked him where he would like to be in five years. “Well, there are only so many places to fill and I don’t think anyone is going anywhere,” he said matter-of-factly.

Contrary to popular perception complacency in the workplace is not a virtue, and while predatory ambition may not fit in to everyone career path, goals certainly should.

One of my many mentors told me, my career goal should be to be able to replace the person I have the most professional respect for – to strive to do what they do, as well as they do it. This allows them to move ahead while I move forward myself. “When you can fill in for me, Faria, then I will be proud of you,” he would say.

Ambition and ruthlessness do not need to go hand in hand. The desire to get ahead is something we should embrace not be ashamed of. As a culture, our employees should know that their accomplishments are a stepping stone to something greater – because the alternative is simply exhausting.

Faria Syed

Faria Syed

A Karachi based multi-media journalist working on the web desk of The Express Tribune. Faria blogs about life in the news business and human rights.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Jamal

    Your mentor sounds quite obnoxious Faria.Recommend

  • S. Ali Raza

    Now you’ll be under the microscope ;) Start making them feel uncomfortable, why don’t you ;)Recommend

  • Ali Hassan

    There is always room at the top.Recommend

  • Deen Sheikh

    Nice piece Faria
    I agree that in order to succeed in life, we dont have to resort to the dog eat dog world mindset, people need to start realising this from an early age otherwise such attitudes can become a part of most of their adult lives
    I remember from A levels, there were people who competed ferociously over college apps by sabotaging others apps etcRecommend

  • parvez

    Interesting thoughts put up by you.
    You imply that to get to the top you need ambition and ruthlessness but you also need brains and the ability to work very very hard.
    Completely agree that complacency will get you no where in a good out fit. Recommend

  • Live and learn

    Enjoyed reading this!Recommend

  • Sabin Agha

    Faria, it’s a very good write-up. Keep up the good work. I just wanted to make a comment. A true professional is someone who engages in an activity or profession with great competence, respect other professionals, give credit where it is due, and receive knowledge with great respect from the one who is imparting it and so on. Being ambitious is one of the ways to move forward. However, it should not feed on “replacing the senior”. What is ambitious is to rely more on learning under the guiding light of his/her knowledge, experience, expertise and follow his/her footsteps to become a true professional yourself. Ironically, with reference to our field, i.e. media and journalism, mechanisms like political affiliations and personal biasness has crept deep into the system producing “swamps and swamps” of amateurs and non-professionals who made it really fast to the helm of affairs and they in turn support and project amateurs, whose “ambition” is to replace professionals with non-professionals in order to secure their own turf.Recommend